The Flowering Field
Contemporary Chinese Painting

Preface by Howard Rogers

It is surprisingly difficult to define or characterize the contemporary era, that in which one lives and should know best. Suffering on the one hand from lack of the defined clarity of the past, the contemporary era is bordered on the other hand by the nebulous future. Continuously emerging from unchangeable historical circumstances, one's own era progresses inexorably towards the unknowable future through series of linked and unlinked actions taken consciously and unconsciously by everyone. Contemporary art - the tangible results of aesthetic decisions and actions occurring during the contemporary era - is therefore determined and defined by temporal and spatial parameters and is comprehensible only in a historical context, by its relationship to the immediate past.

Space and time are thus the two constant companions and assistants of all critics, curators and art'historians, for only with their aid can the boundaries and limits be erected that allow for exhibitions and critical and art-historical discourse. Past practice would suggest that either of these variables may be adjusted during the course of a particular investigation but the other must then be held fast if the venture is to be successful. Thus, for example, the epochal exhibition organized by Jay Levenson, Circa 1492, held time throughout the world more or less constant but gave full reign to the spatial dimension, with the result that 569 paintings and objects were borrowed for that exhibition from a total of 33 countries. A far greater number of exhibitions are predicated on the opposite tact, which is to hold space constant but allow time to vary, resulting in the ubiquitious "Masterpieces of X (Country)" type of generic exhibition.

The present exhibition is of the first type: the 58 artists represented in the exhibition live in various cities throughout Asia , Europe , and North America , and at least 17 of the paintings in the exhibition were painted during the present year and all were created since 1985. However, the exhibition is further circumscribed in several ways. It is, first of all, limited to works

by significant artists no older than the eldest among the organizers of the show, so all of the artists were born no earlier than the year 1940. The exhibition thus serves not only to manifest a wide range of contemporary achievements in painting but also augurs the future goals that will be pursued by this group of younger masters.

The artists asked to participate in this exhibition met one additional criterion: they are specifically and consciously Chinese painters. This was neither a racial nor a nationalistic requirement, since the artists in fact are citizens of a number of countries. Nor was this final standard a matter of aesthetics, technique, or subject but rather solely of media, the use of traditional brush-and-ink on paper and silk. Chinese artists working in oils are thus not included and neither are those working in other Western-inspired approaches such as photomontage, photography, installation, video, computer, and mixed media. One of our basic goals in organizing this exhibition was to examine the current status and future prospects of a movement generally known as guohua ( 國畫 ), "national (ie. Chinese) painting."

The term guohua, a simplification of Zhongguohua ( 中國畫 ) "Chinese painting", came into use during the late Qing dynasty (1644-1911) as a nationalistic response to the perceived failure of contemporaneous Chinese political and cultural institutions. In emulation of the Japanese Nihonga ( 日本畫 ) or "Japanese painting" movement, which from the mid-19th century onward had stressed Japanese subject-matter painted in traditional Japanese techniques, as opposed to Yuga or Western-style painting produced by artists working both technically and aesthetically in the Western manner, the guohua movement sought to revive the Chinese painting tradition internally, without recourse to external resources. The basic dilemma facing Chinese painters was then and remains yet today whether to seek progress through recovery or via discovery. 1

The first of these strategies requires mastery of traditional techniques through study of a classical canon which then serves as foundation and measure for later creative decisions; the second jettisons inherited techniques and media in an all-out assault on the unknown. In the United States especially, progress is regarded as morally good, so avant garde movements and "cutting edge"; artists are almost always sought out and praised. The results of such voyages without compass are often incomprehensible, however, and artists who emphasize discovery over recovery must then explain their work to us or rely on professional critics to do the job for them. Guohua painters, in restricting themselves to traditional media, have ensured that their works are grounded in history and will thus be viewed and judged against the standards and values embodied in the accepted canon. That agreed-upon measure or repository of value is not fixed and static, however, but continues to change over time and in our century has already been enlarged to accommodate such modern masters as Chang Ta-ch'ien (Zhang Daqian), C.C. Wang (Wang Jiqian), Tseng Yuho (Zeng Youhe), Ch'en Ch'i-kuan (Chen Qikuan) and Wucius Wong (Wang Wuxie) among others. Although guohua does not pretend to represent the future of all painters in China , it by definition is the future of Chinese painting, wherever that is practiced, and it is our hope that the present exhibition will contribute to greater appreciation of the current status and achievements of this important category of contemporary painting.

This project is the result of a most pleasurable collaboration between Kaikodo of New York and Luen Chai of Hong Kong . Mr K.Y Ng drew on his many years of experience with guohua painters in inviting this distinguished group of artists to participate in this joint exhibition. Mr Ng and his assistants at Luen Chai, Sylvia Ho and Alex Chiu, also compiled profiles of the artists and transcribed seals and

inscriptions for the catalogue, the English portions of which are the contributions of Arnold Chang and Mary Ann Rogers. Mr Chang, in another demonstration of his myriad talents, also computerized the Chinese entries, wrote one of the catalogue essays, arranged for the framing of the pictures - which was done by another multi-talented artist in the exhibition, Xu Shiping - and painted "Landing" especially for this exhibition. Professor David Sensabaugh suggested significant improvements to the English translation of one essay and we are grateful for his assistance. Carol Conover and Taeko Wu of Kaikodo in New York and Toyoko Matsumoto and Masako Kubota in Japan are also to be thanked for their assistance in preparing the catalogue and making arrangements for the exhibition.

The catalogue, volume VI of Kaikodo Journal, was entrusted to Elizabeth Knight and her staff at Orientations. Since much of the work overlapped in time with that being done on volume V, special thanks are due Ms Knight for keeping both projects on track and on schedule with a minimum of confusion between them.

Final thanks are due the 58 artists whose splendidly varied creations comprise the exhibition. The wide range of their subjects, styles, and aesthetic visions testifies compellingly to the vitality of contemporary guohua and to the continuing strength of the living tradition they are extending into the future.

 

Howard Rogers

 

Footnote

  1. These terms were used by Dennis O'Brien in a discus-sion of changes in the moral curriculum of U.S. univer-sities; see Dennis O'Brien: "The Disappearing Moral Curriculum." The Key Reporter, volume 62, number 4 (Summer 1997), pp. 1-5.

Preface by Howard Rogers
Foreword by Ng Kaiyuen
The Return to Tradition and the Resurgence of Individuality: New Developments in Contemporary Chinese Painting
Shadow Skeletons and New Realities-Guohua and Cultural Identity
Chinese Painting after the End of Art
Online Catalogue